Miletta Vista Winery Rises From the Ashes
The Miletta Vista tasting room was packed the night of Friday, June 22, 2012. As the winery staff prepared dinner, winery owner Mick McDowell led a group tour of the winery. Meanwhile, customers lined the tasting bar, enjoying the flavors of Brianna, Edelweiss, La Crosse and other Miletta Vista wines made from Nebraska grapes.
Outside on the deck, the pace was slower and tables were filled with locals relaxing after the long work week. They knew the only thing as sweet and relaxing as the chilled Edelweiss was gazing out over the vineyard and down the valley toward Grand Island. Not even the gusting Nebraska wind that blew that evening could steal away one’s breath as effectively as the view from Miletta Vista.
The wind on this June evening was foreshadowing a furious Nebraska thunderstorm; the kind that bullies natives once or twice a season. Howling and relentless, summer storms on the Great Plains often strike at night, forcing every living spirit to bend to nature’s will.
It was the phone that woke Mick and Loretta at 2 a.m. on Saturday morning. In the fog of sleep, the call sounded like a prank, but the caller knew Mick and Loretta’s names. Soon after, the desperate voices of St. Paul native Brandon Nowak and his friends pounding on McDowell’s door, thankfully brought Mick and Loretta out in time to escape the flames, which had already begun to swallow up the winery above their living quarters.
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In minutes, the fire, sparked by lightning and fueled by the raging wind, incinerated five years of Mick and Loretta’s hard work. Miletta Vista had exceeded their expectations and was set to have its best year yet. But now the winery was a total loss, save for a few salvaged items and the couple’s two cats. It took six fire departments more than six hours to fight back the blaze. The firemen said Mick and Loretta were lucky to have made it out alive.
The McDowells were stunned by the loss. They had lost their home, all their belongings and three businesses; the winery and tasting room along with all wine inventory, plus everything from Mick’s real estate business were gone. Their computers were ash as well as all the data stored on them. Fortunately, the file cabinet that stored Mick’s wine recipes was stuffed so tight that the flames only singed the edges and left the documents intact.
‘We had to sit back a day or two, or three, to think about what we needed to do,” Mick said. ‘We needed time alone together to process what had happened.”
In the days that followed, Mick and Loretta had many decisions to face. The fire had left them without even the most basic necessities. Aid from the Red Cross put Mick and Loretta in a hotel for a few days and provided money for food and clothing while the couple took some time to make sense of how drastically their lives had changed.
‘At first I thought, ‘I’m 54, why would I rebuild,'” Mick said. ‘Ultimately, we decided we had built enough of a business over the last five years that it was financially a good idea to continue. We’d won two national and international awards for wine quality, and we have a tremendous location. Not every winery owner is so fortunate. I knew I wasn’t done making great wines yet.”
The loss of their business and the process of rebuilding brought many surprises, challenges to face and lessons to learn.
‘We were underinsured,” Mick said. ‘We had good insurance, but there were places we were lacking. To rebuild it would cost us nearly twice what the original cost, and our premiums went up 212 percent.”
Mick recommends that winery owners closely evaluate their insurance policies. Areas of coverage that can be overlooked are often those that are most needed following a disaster; coverage for staff wages, salvage, clean-up and fire department costs. They were surprised to learn that under their policy, personal property loss not only included items like tables and chairs, but even the wine inventory.
‘You have to decide how deep are your pockets,” Mick said. ‘Evaluate what is real and increase your premiums for inflation. Double-check your policy to make sure you have loss of business and clean up costs covered, and have a list of serial numbers for all your equipment and know its replacement value.”
Unfortunately for Mick, the fire occurred right before harvest was set to start in July. Edelweiss came on nearly three weeks ahead of schedule, due to the hot, dry summer, and only 25 days after the fire. They needed a miracle to get their crop down.
Mick and Loretta received many offers of help and support from the Nebraska wine community and from friends in the St. Paul area and far beyond. Volunteer pickers arrived before sunrise every Saturday to help gather the harvest. Nick and Kristin Ryan, owners of nearby Prairie Creek Winery, offered to help press the grapes and chill and store the juice until Miletta’s new equipment arrived.
‘After the fire, there were so many levels of things that had to go on,” Mick said. ‘You have to be an adrenaline junky to survive something like this,” he joked.
As demolition wrapped up, Mick and the staff faced many challenges. July and August brought several weeks of temperatures over 100 degrees. Adding to the stress was the challenge of working in new roles without the normalcy of the everyday duties they knew before.
To best manage his staff, Mick initiated two-a-day meetings for everyone to evaluate what was achieved that day and what needed to be done the next day.
‘They (the winery staff) were good about being able to push forward,” Mick said of his staff. ‘We had to keep moving forward or give up. Anything other than forward was counterproductive.”
Mick said if there was a silver lining to the disaster, it was the encouragement and support from their loyal customers and friends of Miletta Vista and the reaffirmation of where they wanted their business to grow.
‘We have more that we can prove to our financiers. We’ll keep producing the best quality wines we can produce and continue to market to people in the wine culture,” Mick said. ‘I continue to believe that Midwest wines have the ability to offer something new to the wine palate.”
The steel frame is currently being constructed and the structure will be fully enclosed by the end of November. Previews of the completed winery and tasting room, which are larger than the original, are planned for February. A grand reopening is tentatively set near Valentine’s Day 2013.
Mick Milletta’s Advice For Winery Property/Casualty Insurance
• Evaluate your insurance policy for areas of insufficient coverage
• Adjust insurance coverage and premiums according to any rise in value and for inflation
• Inventory all equipment and personal property and know replacement costs
• Invest in a fire-proof safe for valuable business documents
• Keep an offsite electronic location to back up all your digital data and records
• Have a plan of what to do following a disaster
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